As Taiwan Joins U.S. Democracy Summit, It Loses Another Partner to China

Just as Taiwan stepped up on the world stage by joining the Summit for Democracy being hosted virtually by the United States, the disputed, self-ruling island lost one of its few remaining diplomatic partners to China.

The Central American nation of Nicaragua announced Thursday, hours after the two-day Summit for Democracy involving more than 100 countries began, that it would officially sever relations with Taiwan—officially the Republic of China—and forge diplomatic ties with mainland China—officially the People's Republic of China.

"The Government of the Republic of Nicaragua declares that it recognizes that in the world there is only one single China," a statement attributed to Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said. "The People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all of China, and Taiwan is in an alienable part of the Chinese territory."

The Chinese government in Beijing, ruled by the Communist Party, requires that countries forego relations with the rival administration in Taipei in order to establish relations.

"The Government of the Republic of Nicaragua today breaks diplomatic relations with Taiwan and ceases to have any contact or official relationship," Moncada added.

The shift leaves Taiwan's state-to-state ties down to 13, including the other Latin American nations of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay, the Caribbean countries of Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent, the Grenadines, the Asia-Pacific island states of Nauru, Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuvalu, as well as Eswatini in Africa. Taiwan also has an official relationship with the Holy See, which represents the Vatican.

The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing regret over the move made by the government of longtime left-wing leader Daniel Ortega, who first ruled for about a decade after coming to power in a 1979 revolution opposed by the U.S. and has remained in power since being elected in 2007, with his wife, Rosario María Murillo, serving as vice president since 2017.

"It's with great regret we end diplomatic ties with Nicaragua," the ministry said in a statement published Thursday. "Long-standing friendship & successful cooperation benefiting the people of both countries were disregarded by the Ortega government. Taiwan remains unbowed & will continue as a force for good in the world."

China, Nicaragua, relations, declaration
Nicaraguan and Chinese officials establish diplomatic relations following talks in the Chinese city of Tianjin on December 10. China has rapidly expanded its global influence under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, including in Latin America, where some of the last remaining states to have ties to Taiwan are located. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Beijing, on the other hand, hailed the declaration, which was made formalized in a communiqué following talks between Chinese and Nicaraguan officials Chinese city of Tianjin.

"The People's Republic of China and the Republic of Nicaragua, in keeping with the interests and desire of the two peoples, have decided to recognize each other and resume diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level, effective from the date of signature of this communiqué," a readout published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated.

The report went on to say that both goverments "agree to develop friendly relations between the two countries on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence."

And it reiterated Nicaragua's vow to shun Taiwan.

"The Government of the Republic of Nicaragua recognizes that there is but one China in the world, the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal Government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory," the Chinese readout continued. "The Government of the Republic of Nicaragua shall sever 'diplomatic relations' with Taiwan as of this day and undertakes that it shall no longer develop any official relations or official exchanges with Taiwan."

And "the Government of the People's Republic of China appreciates this position of the Government of the Republic of Nicaragua," it said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted that Managua made "the right choice that is in line with the global trend and has the people's support."

"#China stands ready to work with #Nicaragua on enhancing friendly cooperation in various fields to the benefit of our two countries and peoples," she wrote.

Nicaragua's decision marks a blow to Taiwan's push for representation in the international community, a campaign that has been increasingly backed by the United States and a number of its global allies and partners at a time when tensions ran high between Washington and Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press conference earlier Thursday that the Summit for Democracy "has nothing to do with international justice or democracy, but rather about serving the U.S.' own selfish gains and maintaining its hegemony."

"The political manipulation of the U.S. in the name of democracy will only be met with wide opposition in the international community," he added.

In addition to criticizing President Joe Biden's decision to invite Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy, China has recently lashed out against Lithuania, downgrading diplomatic ties with the Baltic country last month due to Vilnius' decision to establish a political office for Taipei. Chinese companies have since begun pulling out of Lithuania, which has accused Beijing of orchestrating a state-sponsored boycott.

Asked for a response, Wenbin told reporters earlier Thursday that he was "not aware of the specific situation" but defended China's position.

"I want to stress that China always acts in a way that conforms to WTO rules," Wang said. "Lithuania acted in bad faith, renounced the political commitment it has made to China upon the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, and openly created the false impression of 'one China, one Taiwan' in the world. Such egregious act seriously undermined China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and created a vile precedent in the world."

And he asserted that China "will resolutely uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity and defend our core interests."

Washington initially recognized the exiled government in Taipei after the Communist victory in China's civil war in 1949 but instead switched to Beijing three decades later as the country began to open up to the world, ultimately ascending to the world's second-largest economy and set on the path to becoming the first. But the U.S. retained unofficial ties to Taiwan, including political and military support that has been expanded under Biden and former President Donald Trump before him.

China, HKND, Nicaragua, Canal
Chinese businessman Wang Jing of HKND Group delivers a speech during the inauguration of the works of a planned inter-oceanic canal in Tola, around 3 kilometers from Rivas, Nicaragua, on December 22, 2014. The project was ultimately abandoned and HKND dismantled in 2018 but official relations between Managua and Beijing may pave the way for new opportunities. Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images

But Taiwan's international relations have waned nonetheless, especially in the face of China's economic might. Even prior to establishing official ties, a Chinese business sought to invest in Nicaragua through an ambitious canal project aborted in 2018, and the country has struggled in recent years economically with high unemployment and a growing list of U.S. sanctions.

A statement later released by State Department spokesperson Ned Price the "Ortega-Murillo regime has announced it has severed diplomatic relations and ended official contact with Taiwan, but the sham election on November 7 did not provide it with any mandate to remove Nicaragua from the family of American democracies."

"Without the mandate that comes with a free and fair election, Ortega's actions cannot reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people, who continue to struggle for democracy and the ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms," Price said. "We do know, however, that this deprives Nicaragua's people of a steadfast partner in its democratic and economic growth."

He also defended what he argued were the values of fostering ties with Taipei.

"Taiwan's relationships with diplomatic partners in the Western Hemisphere provide significant economic and security benefits to the citizens of those countries," Price said. "We encourage all countries that value democratic institutions, transparency, the rule of law, and promoting economic prosperity for their citizens to expand engagement with Taiwan."

As China expands its own global footprint, however, the country has asserted the right to retake Taiwan either through diplomacy or by force if necessary, a policy Chinese President Xi Jinping has underscored through military moves such as the regular passage of People's Liberation Army warplanes through the island's claimed Air Defense Identification Zone.

During a press conference earlier Thursday, Price referred to these flights and other Chinese military actions as "intimidating acts, something that we oppose, something that only heightens tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and something we've been very clear and resolute in condemning."

And while Price would not shift from the traditional U.S. stance of neither confirming nor denying a military commitment to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, Price said that "we have made very clear to the PRC that any effort to change the status quo unilaterally, by force, would be a profound and dangerous mistake."

Taiwan, Navy, visit, Nicaragua
Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said that the nation recognizes "one China." Above, Nicaraguan students wave Taiwanese flags to welcome three Taiwanese Navy warships at Corinto port, around 149 kilometers northwest of Managua, on April 9, 2018. INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images